QUANTICO, Md. — With a brisk wind blowing under gray skies, Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis stood in front of a farm trying to describe what he had just seen behind the house.
"The siding — aluminum siding — was eaten off the house, and fiberglass insulation had been pulled out," said a visibly shaken Lewis on Saturday. "Those horses were so hungry, they had broken the glass sliding doors on the back of the house, trying to get in and find something to eat. There's mud and broken glass all around the back of the house."
More than two dozen dead horses in varying degrees of decay were discovered at the farm and reported to the sheriff's office Friday morning, which is when an investigation at the 2.13-acre property began. The land is owned by Clayton P. and Barbara L. Pilchard, according to Maryland property records.
Marjie Cancil, who lives near the farm, drove past Saturday afternoon and stopped to see what was happening.
Cancil said she never really got to know Barbara Pilchard, even though they were neighbors for at least 25 years. Cancil said she had been unaware of any possible neglect of the horses.
"I knew her horses sometimes got out and raised concerns," she said, “but I've never seen an emaciated horse, never saw any indication anything was wrong."
Cancil said she believed hay had been regularly delivered to the farm, every 10 days or so.
"I knew the horses were not being groomed or cared for in that respect, but they always seemed to me to be OK for field animals."
It was still undetermined Saturday afternoon how many horses remained on the property, but a large herd of live horses was visible from the road in front of the house, crowded around three stacks of hay.
Lewis said that after he left the property Friday afternoon, he had not planned to return Saturday. Instead, he said, he had planned to wait for results of a necropsy ordered on one carcass.
But what he had seen Friday afternoon haunted him. He said he was on the phone until midnight with Aaron Balsamo, executive director of the Humane Society of Wicomico County.
"We were brainstorming what we could do to help those horses," Lewis said.
So early Saturday morning, Lewis was back at the farm, along with Balsamo and Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver, who provided full access to county resources in an attempt to make sure the horses still on the property would get the care and nourishment they needed.
Culver described one mare that he and Lewis had found when they arrived. The mare was giving birth unattended outside the house, he said, and the foal was stuck in the birth canal.
"That foal was delivered stillborn," Culver said. "And the mother, she threw her head up and just wailed. I looked at her and I could see the hurt in her eyes. She kept nudging the foal, trying to help it get up. But it was dead. It was so sad, and there was nothing we could do."
Cleanup and rescue efforts proceeded well into the afternoon. Barbara Pilchard was cooperating with the sheriff and county officials in their efforts to rescue the remaining horses.
The mud was so deep and prevalent, one of two front-end loaders that were removing the carcasses became mired and needed additional equipment to pull it out.
"All of the live horses will be seized," Lewis said, "starting with the mares and foals, and all of them will be taken to an undisclosed location."
He said they would try to keep them all together if possible.
More than 5,000 pounds of grain had been delivered to the farm Saturday morning, Lewis said, after a donation from Bryan & Brittingham, a farm supply store in Delmar. Another donor delivered 25 bales of hay.
Horses came out of the woods and fields to push their way close enough to grab a few bites of hay. They remained and continued eating for several hours Saturday afternoon.
Lewes said most of the horses had been living in the back of the property, too far away to be seen from the road, and no one knew how many were there.
The horses had received no veterinary care.
Culver said after he was notified Friday about the incident, he called Wicomico County health and solid waste officials to determine the best way to dispose of the carcasses.
The dead horses would be taken to the Wicomico County landfill, Lewis said, where they would be contained by a special liner to prevent any infectious disease from infiltrating the groundwater.
Lewis said there had been a complaint about the property three or four years ago, and the sheriff's office came out with the humane society and an equine expert. But Lewis said his department was told there was insufficient evidence at that time to support any charges of horse neglect.